A visionary tableau spanning three metres in width, Untitled is a monumental work dating from the latter years of Per Kirkeby’s extraordinary life. In vivid tones of green, blue and fiery orange, the artist weaves a majestic landscape, layering washes of paint with near-calligraphic strokes. Painted in 2012, the year before he suffered a tragic brain injury, it represents the culmination of over half a century of practice, combining virtuosic technique with his lifelong interest in the natural world. Originally trained in geology, Kirkeby was inspired by the rich terrains of his native Denmark. Though frequently associated with German Neo-Expressionist artists such as Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff, he derived much of his inspiration from his Romantic, Post-Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist forebears: notably Delacroix, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Pollock. Continuing a Northern European landscape tradition that has its roots in the work of Caspar David Friedrich, he developed an intuitive, improvisatory language caught in the sublime territory between figuration and abstraction. With its organic flux of colour, texture and form, the present work is less a depiction of a specific location than a visceral hymn to the magic and mystery of nature. ‘There is a hidden reality and it is the real reality’, Kirkeby once explained. ‘We only see it in glimpses. A painter can sometimes see it … and if I paint at all, it is only because I have those glimpses’ (P. Kirkeby, quoted in Per Kirkeby, Brussels, exh. cat., Galerie Phillipe Guimot, Brussels, 1991, p. 64).
As a geology student, Kirkeby visited Greenland, Central America and the Arctic, whose dramatic landscapes inspired his earliest drawings. Following his decision to pursue a career in art, he became involved with Copenhagen’s Experimental Art School in the early 1960s. Much of his initial practice was conceptual in spirit and wide-ranging in medium, informed by his affiliation with the Fluxus movement and his admiration for Joseph Beuys. Though poetry, performance, sculpture, film-making and installation remained vital strands of his practice - he designed sets for the New York City Ballet and visual effects for three films by Lars von Trier - it was in painting that Kirkeby found his greatest creative outlet. He conceived his canvases as ‘collapse structures’ - a metaphor borrowed from geological theories of landslide and slump. His handling of pigment, as evidenced by the present work, was tactile and fluid, inviting comparison with the work of fellow Danish artist Asger Jorn. ‘I like to get pictures going with some form of battleground in which certain things have to be defeated in order that something else may emerge’, he explained (P. Kirkeby, Samtaler med Lars Morell, Borgen 1997, p. 142). Kirkeby saw a fundamental synergy between his medium and his subject: paint, he believed, could directly imitate the properties of the natural landscape. This conviction is borne out to spectacular effect in the present work, where pigment accumulates like gnarled bark, dapples like sunlight through leaves and flows like running water. Reality and its representation become hypnotically entangled; ‘the light of ambivalence is a heavenly one’, said Kirkeby (P. Kirkeby, quoted in R. Smith, ‘Per Kirkeby, Painter Inspired by Nature, is Dead at 79’, The New York Times, 20 May 2018).